Teachers-Turned-Authors Keep Middle Grade Lit Real

Current and former middle school teachers bring their experience and students to their work to create characters, dialogue, and stories that resonate with readers.

Despite living their lives through the frequently  distorted worlds of SnapChat filters and Instagram posts, tweens still have the ability to recognize what’s real. They can spot it in a teacher or adult trying to connect with them, and they can identify it in the pages of a bookthe characters, dialogue, and plotlines of a middle grade novel attempting to tell their stories.

Or as Torrey Maldonado, a Brooklyn middle school teacher and author of Secret Saturdays and Tight, says, “Kids have an internal BS detector.”

So who better to write middle grade lit than the current and former teachers who have lived the daily challenges with its readers, and worked with students who have walked into the classroom with different issues, insecurities, and secret struggles from home? These teachers have a special place in their heart for children, and a particular insight into their world.

“I think that former teachers write for children, because we love kids,” Lynda Mullaly Hunt, who taught third grade, wrote in an email. 

“I have the beginnings of two novels for adults,” added Hunt, author of Fish in a Tree and the forthcoming Shouting at the Rain, who is one of the keynote speakers at SLJ’s Middle Grade Magic Virtual Summit on Wednesday. “I’ve been told they have some of my best writing. But I have zero interest in writing for the adult audience. Kids are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. They understand much more about the world than people give them credit for. And they are open. They can be changed by books.”

Maldonado knows, however,  that depending on the book, the impact might not always be positive.

“In early childhood schooling, I was not exposed to books that hooked me,” he says. “These books took people like me and put us on the side. We were side characters. These books took people like me and turned me into caricatures. We were criminals. These books demonized us. Or these books didn’t even have us. We were invisible.

“The experience helped me to disconnect from books so hard that in the third grade I was left back, and nothing changed. I still was given culturally insensitive books that didn’t connect to my life, my peers’ lives, my family’s lives, or the lives of the people in my community. They weren’t real books. Someone or groups of people valued these books. But these books weren’t valuable to us. They weren’t tools for us to be inspired, to change ourselves or our world.”

Hunt, Maldonado, and other current and former teachers are now writing for the students they saw who felt invisible and, in some cases, for their younger selves who never found books that spoke to them or had characters who accurately showed their life experience. In their novels, the characters and dialogue ring true for readers. The authors write from their experience and their connection with students.

“The most important thing was that I learned to love every child who entered my classroom no matter how much baggage they brought with them,” says Ann Braden, former middle school social studies teacher and author of The Benefits of Being an Octopus. “That means that not only it is easy to feel like I already ‘know’ a wide range of characters, but I love them all….When you have such a range of kids who still live in your heart, it's pretty straightforward to channel them onto the page.”

Maldonado says his writes “his truth,” what he knows from as honest a place as he can. But the truth is that he creates stories that are an amalgamation of his life his students'—his childhood times and theirs, and the unchanging challenges of growing up in any circumstance.

“We’re the sum total of our experiences, and I can’t divorce myself as a teacher and a writer from my student experience,” says Maldonado. “What I know is inspired by the kids in middle school. I see myself in my students.”

Hunt, too, creates her characters from a combination of personal influences.

“I build characters based upon the children I’ve met, the child I was, and the stories I think can entertain as well as help them thrive,” she wrote. “I love to create stories about kids who find themselves in difficult circumstances and find a way out by digging into their grit, smarts, being brave enough to ask for help, and having the courage to connect to other people.

“On paper, this all sounds simple, but it the real world—in the age of technology, especially—this stuff is hard. As authors, we serve as role models for our readers. It’s a privilege. One I never take for granted.”

And being a former teacher keeps her grounded, she says.

BenefitsofBeinganOctopus

“Creatives are sensitive people, we sometimes chase the wrong things, such as lists and accolades and awards,” she wrote. “I do think that being a former teacher shines a light upon the futility of these things. Helping a child change his/her perspective. See themselves and others with more compassion. There is nothing better than playing a role in helping kids become happier, more connected humans. Nothing better.”

All three authors said being teachers had a direct impact on not only how they write, but on them becoming writers at all. They also see the two jobs as very similar.

“To me, educators and children's authors are generally doing the same kind of work, just from different angles,” says Braden. “One is working with students directly to help them take the steps they need to develop into a reader, a writer, a thinker, and a helpful member of the community. One is giving them stories to inspire them forward as they take those steps.”

Part of Maldonado’s passion as a teacher is to try to get his students hooked on books, he says. It’s also what he is trying to do as an author—something he loves but still doesn’t yet have the wide-reaching effect to make him consider quitting his day job.

“I have tremendous impact as a classroom teacher, because I get to be around kids as they make choices that subtly shift the trajectory of their lives every day,” he says. “I love that impact.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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